Sunday, September 11, 2011

11/09 6 MONTHS ON FROM MARCH 11 DISASTER / Town wants to turn popular athletics park into residential area

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A tug-of-war erupted over whether an Onagawacho athletics park that survived the March 11 disaster should be used as a site for desperately needed land for housing, or retained as one of the town's few remaining "assets."

"Our top priority is to help local residents live with a sense of assurance as soon as possible," said Noriyuki Suzuki, head of the Onagawacho tourism association. He was speaking at the first meeting of a disaster reconstruction committee consisting of local representatives, academics and others.

Suzuki, 60, proposed the town's athletics park, 33 meters above sea level and one of the few facilities spared by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, be used as a site for housing for residents displaced by the disaster.

"[Residential areas] should be established in locations where preparatory development can be completed quickly," he said at the meeting, which was held May 1 at Onagawa No. 2 Primary School.

However, in an initial draft reconstruction plan submitted at the meeting by the Onagawacho government, the park was listed as part of the "education and sports facility area," and therefore not to be used for relocating displaced residents.

Instead, the town government planned to establish residential land by clearing nearby hilly areas.

"As local residents, we felt slightly awkward [about the plan]. It would be quicker to use land already available," said Suzuki, whose house was swept away by the tsunami.

At a second meeting on May 9, it was agreed to turn the athletics park, which covers 24.5 hectares and accounts for about 13 percent of the town's available land for housing, into an area for residential development.

However, town residents voiced objections at a public hearing session in late July. Some insisted the land remain an athletics park because it was one of the few assets remaining in the town.

The athletics park had a number of popular facilities and attracted about 230,000 people annually. By 1998, about 3.6 billion yen had been injected into facilities in the park, including a baseball stadium and an athletics field. The town government used the park as part of a "sports tourism" initiative and held softball games there during the 2001 National Sports Festival hosted by the prefecture.

Repairing the park is expected to cost about 1 billion yen for the athletics field alone, which was damaged by the earthquake.

Onagawacho government officials also said land for houses for displaced residents could be prepared a year earlier by using the park instead of developing new land.

After the public hearing, committee members agreed to consider keeping some of the park's facilities, but did not entirely retract their initial decision to use it for residential purposes.


Safer commercial center

Eighty-two percent of land in Onagawacho is hilly or forested, and less than 3 percent is residential, meaning the town will proceed with redevelopment plans in areas hit by the tsunami.

The envisaged new commerce and tourism zone for the town is planned for the Onagawa Station vicinity, an area swamped by the tsunami.

"The area is convenient in terms of transport systems [connecting the town with the city of] Ishinomaki. There's no choice but to rebuild here," said Masanori Takahashi, chairman of the Onagawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Reconstruction plans for the town have been devised from the standpoint of minimizing potential natural disaster damage.

Specific measures include raising the ground level of the commercial zone; raising a national highway running along the coast so it also functions as a dike; and constructing tall buildings 500 meters apart so people could evacuate to them easily in a tsunami.


Fishing communities affected

Fifteen fishing communities in Onagawacho were almost entirely wiped out by the March disaster. The town government proposed in its draft reconstruction plan that the communities be consolidated into two locations on higher ground and that fisheries ports also be consolidated.

Some local fishermen opposed the plan.

"We agree with plans to relocate [our communities] to higher ground, but it's difficult to consolidate them," said Shoki Abe, 61, a senior official of the Onagawacho branch of the Miyagi prefectural fisheries cooperatives association and a member of the committee.

Abe, who cultivates silver salmon, was speaking at the disaster reconstruction committee's second meeting.

"Different coastal areas have different cultures and styles of festive shishimai lion dances," he said. "We fishermen are empowered by fishing in these places, which we inherited from our ancestors."

At a public hearing in late May, a number of fishermen said they would not accept relocation to areas where they could not keep their eyes on their boats. Some fishermen repeatedly visited the town government to request each community could be relocated as a whole.

The disaster reconstruction committee has put off a decision on the relocation of fishing communities.

However, younger members of these communities have expressed different views to the town government. Some said they could not expect women to come to marry local fishermen if their communities were small, while others said young residents would move away unless people are relocated to form large communities.

Town officials said there is still room for talks with residents on the matter.

(Sep. 11, 2011)

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